Will Obama's populist message win him votes next year?

Business Times - 13 Dec 2011

Will Obama's populist message win him votes next year?

The US president seems to be picking up the political mantle of the legendary Theodore Roosevelt in recent days


PRESIDENT Theodore Roosevelt is one of the three most revered Republican presidents in US history (the other two being Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan) which raises an interesting question: why is Democratic President Barack Obama trying to sound like that Republican president as he prepares to confront his Republican challenger next year?

But then it is doubtful that TR would be celebrated by present-day conservative Republicans. He was, in fact, a self-proclaimed 'progressive' who had rallied against the big corporations and financial institutions of his day and admonished Americans to promote more social and economic equality. The populist message advanced by 'Teddy' would be decried today by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as 'socialist' and 'anti-American'.

At the same, TR - an urbane New Yorker and a fiery environmentalist who would probably be hailing Mr Obama's government-backed health care insurance programme - would not feel at home today among the anti-elitists and climate-change deniers of the Tea Party who seem to be united by their absolute disdain for the so-called Obamacare and other components of the American welfare state that he and his fifth cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, helped to create.

Blasting the current Republican leaders and activists for trying to demolish this welfare state, Mr Obama seemed to be picking up the political mantle of TR on Tuesday when he visited the town of Osawatomie (population: 4,600) in eastern Kansas where in 1912 Mr Roosevelt unveiled his programme of the New Nationalism, and called for enacting the kind of social legislation that has been embraced by the US and other Western nations in the 20th century - the minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, women's right to vote and the federal income tax.

At a time when leading Republican presidential candidates describe the national retirement-insurance programme as a 'Ponzi scheme', and urge schools to hire poor children as janitors and place at the centre of their election campaigns a promise to slash spending on social-economic programmes for the middle class and the poor while cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans - Mr Obama seems to think that embracing TR's progressive message of 1912 would help him get re-elected in 2012.

And, indeed, Mr Obama's 55-minute speech in a high school in Osawatomie echoed the political themes in the address that TR had made a century earlier, including the denunciation of the greed and reckless behaviour of Wall Street and the lobbyists in Washington who protect their 'special interests' and a call for a strong and central federal government that would help protect the interests of ordinary Americans on Main Street. What Mr Obama was trying to do was to frame the debate of the presidential (and Congressional) campaign of 2012 as one that is pitting the proponents of inclusiveness, fairness, and American middle-class values - the Democrats - against a Republican social and economic agenda that is helping to squeeze a struggling middle class while making the rich richer. 'This is the defining issue of our time,'Â Mr Obama said before the crowd in Osawatomie.

There are intriguing historical parallels between the evolution of the American economic and political systems in the early 20th century and the changes that are taking place in the country a century later.

During the so-called Gilded Age of the 19th century Americans had witnessed the widening of social-economic inequality and the expansion of the financial industry and the development of new industries (railroads) and technologies that helped foster super-rich elite with its powerful lobbyists in Washington.

TR targeted 'the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics' and called for more public regulation of Wall Street and the big corporations, and the new industrial economy that was developing at the time. He warned that without more government regulation and new labour laws, antitrust legislation and health care and retirement programmes, the growth of the new economy would make it difficult to preserve the American tradition of equal opportunity and maintain the common bonds of the community.

Hence, his call for a New Nationalism and for a Square Deal for America's struggling middle class. 'This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in,' Mr Roosevelt said.

Against the backdrop of a new technological innovation and a transforming American and global economy and the rising social and economic inequality that they have fostered, Mr Obama has an opportunity to adapt TR's populist message and progressive agenda to the new political and economic realities by trying to convince America's middle class of the need to prevent the tearing down of 20th-century social-economic programmes and government regulation.

'This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class,' Mr Obama stated. 'At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement,' he insisted, reiterating his commitment to the forgotten middle class, while admonishing his Republican rivals for allying themselves with the super-rich.

Echoing TR's rhetoric as well the battle-cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Mr Obama detailed the growing gap in average salaries of CEOs' salaries from 30 times the average worker a few decades ago to 110 times today and denounced the rise in the influence of the financial elites on the American politics that was making it more likely that Americans now 'run the risk of selling our democracy to the highest bidder'.

He hailed the establishment of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau as an example of the progressive policies that Democrats are advancing and the Republicans are rejecting.

And like TR in 1912, Mr Obama stressed that the new technologies and economic changes should benefit all Americans, and not just a small minority of business executives and financiers, and that it was the role of the federal government as a ally of the middle class to ensure that that would happen.

Will this populist message strengthen Mr Obama's electoral position at a time when the Republicans will point out the economy under his leadership is not doing so well?

Mr Obama and his aides are hoping that Americans will agree with him that the Great Recession and the current economic and social problems facing the middle class are a result of the kind of the radical free market and anti-government policies that have been pursued by Republicans administrations and that it is the Republicans who are making it now impossible for the current White House occupant to make the reforms that are needed to revitalise the economy and create new jobs.

The Republicans are confident that Americans daydream about the good old days of Ronald Reagan. The Democrats are confident that the voters would like to bring back the political spirit of TR back to Washington. The results of the 2012 elections is going to prove one of them wrong.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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